As the Asian population of Orange County has grown, so has the number of its ethnic restaurants. If you are willing to venture outside of Laguna, you will find an astonishing variety of styles and tastes from Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, of course, from all regions of China. Exploring and tasting is one of the great food adventures offered by life in the O.C.
However, there are times when you just want to eat good old-fashioned Chinese food close to home; you know, the kind we grew up with, the type they serve at China Bistro #1. It is so familiar to us you could almost call it comfort food.
Actually, this cuisine is really one of the first examples of “fusion” food. The standard menu includes: wonton soup and pan-fried noodles from Canton, hot and sour soup or Peking duck which are Mandarin, kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork from Szechuan and sizzling rice soup or crispy duck from Hunan; not to mention egg foo yung and chop suey created by Chinese chefs in America.
China Bistro #1 has been in Laguna for 20 years and although the ownership changed three years ago, Chef Lin has been cooking there for Lagunans the entire time. The new owners have changed the décor to pale taupe walls, soft lighting and comfortable booths, making it a very pleasant, warm environment for casual dining.
On the table for nibbling, as you make your choices, are a plate of fried wonton strips and a saucer of sweet dipping sauce.
Passing on the egg rolls, fried wontons and dumplings, we opted for soup to soothe Elle’s cold. Classic selections include: hot and sour, sizzling rice and wonton. We chose minced chicken and seafood soup, which is a deluxe version of egg drop soup with shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and frozen peas and carrots. The flavor was mild and the texture was somewhat gelatinous, a bit too thick for our taste.
We ordered three main dishes. The first was one of the house specialties — three flavor shrimp — then crispy duck and finally mu shu vegetables.
Three flavor shrimp is actually three separate preparations of fried shrimp, served on a large platter garnished with a perfectly carved turnip in the shape of a lotus blossom, sliced oranges and thinly shredded cabbage. All three kinds of tender shrimp were very lightly battered, very crispy and not the least bit greasy.
The aromatic shrimp was tossed in a tasty sweet hot sauce and served on a bed of fried rice noodles. The walnut shrimp came in a creamy, slightly sweet mayonnaise-type sauce with fresh pineapple, garnished with whole, lightly candied walnuts. The third preparation was garlic shrimp tossed with fried sliced garlic and green onions: very garlicky, which we loved but a little too salty.
Although this dish is the most expensive one on the menu, it was a very large portion that could easily feed four people as part of a Chinese style meal and the variety makes for fun tasting.
You can order mu shu pancakes with pork, chicken, shrimp or beef but we thought we would try the vegetable version. The four large pancakes were already wrapped when they came to the table accompanied by a bowl of slightly spicy sauce (better than the usual straight hoisin sauce). We were delighted with our choice. We didn’t miss the meat at all because the rolls were loaded with flavor. The vegetables were lightly cooked with just the right amount of oil, plus there was the wonderful taste of well-seasoned fried egg, which sometimes gets lost in the meatier versions.
One of the drawbacks of Chinese food is that there is often too much oil used in stir-frying for our palates (and our waistlines). From the dishes that we tasted, it seems Chef Lin has a lighter hand.
Our last dish was half of a crispy duck. This is roast duck that is deep fried just before serving. It was certainly crispy and the flesh was moist but there was no seasoning to speak of except salt. The sauce on the side was similar to the mu shu sauce but thicker and spicier.
China Bistro #1 does not serve dessert, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. The desserts we remember from the old days, canned lychees, canned fruit salad, ice cream and almond jello, are best forgotten.
In general, desserts are not a feature of classic Chinese cuisine although a variety of sweet soups such as tapioca or red bean may be served at the end of a meal.
No American Chinese meal would be complete however without the ubiquitous fortune cookie. Invented in the United States, the controversy still rages as to their origin, either in 1909 at the Japanese Tea Garden in in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or in 1918 at the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles. They didn’t actually appear in China until 1992 courtesy of the Wonton Food Company of Brooklyn.
The first fortunes were biblical messages. A variety of superstitions surround the realization of the fortune, for example: one must consume the entire cookie for it to come true or, as some believe, an unlucky fortune may be circumvented by not eating the cookie, while others think that the message should not be read aloud — similar to a birthday wish — if it is to come true.
Another tradition of American Chinese food is that it can be delivered. China Bistro #1 is no exception. So on those nights when you don’t feel like cooking or there is a great game on TV, you can call Restaurants on the Run at (949) 951-2500 or order online at www.ROTR.com and order some old favorites.
Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@aolcom